American Families Rebel Against K-12 Standardization with their Pocketbooks

September 27, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Research from Sabrino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg tracks enrichment spending by family decile income. The above chart tracks trends in enrichment spending by the top and bottom deciles of income over time. As you can see, upper income families are enriching with increasing gusto, while lower-income families have flat enrichment expenditures.

Enrichment- coming in various forms such as tutors, club sports, Kumon, Mathnasium etc. has become increasingly ubiquitous among the posh. It seems entirely normal, but we should recognize the significance of this trend. In addition to the equity issue staring back at you in this chart, there is also something else worth noting in the data: upper-income America continues to put their children into public schools in high numbers but they are solely relying upon those schools less and less. It’s always been the case that all American families should know better than to entirely rely upon any school to provide the totality of the education of their child. Upper income families have the ability and increasing willingness to act. Jay refers to this trend as hybrid homeschooling. I think of it as a better American version of Japanese cram schools.

In places like Japan and South Korea university admission is highly selective and competitive, and families routinely send their children to what are called “cram schools” after their regular school to prepare for admission exams. Andrew Coulson made a convincing case in Market Education that these private after school programs were more responsible for Japan and Korea’s high PISA scores than their public school systems.

To which America says “I see your obsessive preoccupation with standardized test prep mania and raise you a hackerspace for kids!”


If that’s not your child’s cup of tea don’t worry because there are many other options. On the academic side you can get Advanced Placement coursework and textbooks for free, and take the AP exams for a shot at college credit for approximately $85 per course. That however is just academic stuff, albeit academic stuff that can earn you college credit at an amazingly low price- how about something fun like animation camp? Or museum programs? If you go to you can find all kinds of stuff- from art, music, wood shop to ethics classes.

The trend towards enrichment may in fact be in part fueled by the overreaching of standardization in public education. Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman for instance noted in Education by Choice:

To the extent that schools of choice must conform to state imposed curriculum requirements, the principle of family control is compromised. Each centrally imposed curriculum prescription or prohibition tends to shrink the proportion of families that can be satisfied. If the state demands too much the effect will go beyond simply adding or eliminating certain courses; entire schools will be excluded. For example some preexisting private institutions would refuse to participate if sex education were required, others would refuse if it were forbidden. It seems sensible for us for the state to impose very few restrictions or mandates. In general schools should be free to please themselves and their customers.

Coons and Sugarman go on to say that in a choice system we should allow individual public school campuses to decide upon their curriculum as well. Such freedom is far more plausible in a liberal system of choice, and in the absence of that freedom local control was largely abandoned in a largely futile effort to improve outcomes through centralization. In many ways Coons and Sugarman arrived a place similar to John Stuart Mill, who had warned presciently:

All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

American families have deep misgivings about the conduct of public schooling, especially the modern practice of standardized testing. We should aspire to a schooling system that is a good deal more than providing test-prep custodial care for the advantaged before they move on to more genuine educational experiences after school. Likewise, the equity issue in the above chart deserves to be addressed but realistically must be addressed within a context of increasingly constrained resources. The trend towards top-down standardization in K-12 has predominated in recent decades and produced too little at too great a cost despite good intentions. It’s time for a more liberal approach that gives opportunities to educators to create schools and educational experiences, and families the opportunity to select among them. The last 40 years has gone mostly wrong, some bold states should see if Mills, Coons and Sugarman had it right.



Schooling is Starting to Catch Up to Coons and Sugarman (finally)

September 6, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at RedefinED Jack Coons reflects on the 40th anniversary of the publication of the book Education by Choice with his coauthor Stephen Sugarman.  Dr. Coons in some ways too modest, saying that he and his co-author “did not anticipate” Education Savings Accounts, but in effect I believe that they did. Coons and Sugarman envisioned parents, including low-income parents, having the power to create “personally tailored education” for their children, using “divisible educational experiences.” This sounds very close to education savings accounts/multi-provider education to my ears:

To us, a more attractive idea is matching up a child and a series of individual instructors who operate independently from one another. Studying reading in the morning at Ms. Kay’s house, spending two afternoons a week learning a foreign language in Mr. Buxbaum’s electronic laboratory, and going on nature walks and playing tennis the other afternoons under the direction of Mr. Phillips could be a rich package for a ten-year-old. Aside from the educational broker or clearing house which, for a small fee (payable out of the grant to the family), would link these teachers and children, Kay, Buxbaum, and Phillips need have no organizational ties with one another. Nor would all children studying with Kay need to spend time with Buxbaum and Phillips; instead some would do math with Mr. Feller or animal care with Mr. Vetter.

Coons and Sugarman were talking about education, not just schools, in a way that is today becoming increasingly practiced. They wanted parents in the driver’s seat. In “Education by Choice,” they suggest “living-room schools,” “minischools” and “schools without buildings at all.” They describe “educational parks” where small providers could congregate and “have the advantage of some economies of scale without the disadvantages of organizational hierarchy.” They even float the idea of a “mobile school.” Their prescience is remarkable, given that these are among the models ESA supporters envision today.

If you would like to see how parents are already doing this with their own money- see here. If you want an overview of how it is being done in the context of an ESA program-see here. If you would like to see ESAs in action, see here:

Multi-vendor education has been growing in different forms for decades-with families enrolling in after-school/summer programs of various sorts on one end of the spectrum to full blown homeschooling with multiple service providers on the other. Coons and Sugarman were way ahead of their time, and this is just getting started.